Engines of Our Ingenuity


by John H. Lienhard

Today, the Birch Goose. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I'll bet you didn't know that Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose, once the largest plane ever built, is not made of spruce at all. It's made of birch! So let's talk about birch.

We recently flew into Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. There below us, just outside the runways, lay a vast carpet of birch forest. That great gray-white sea of trees called to mind the birch tree's claim on the Russian subconscious.

Birch Forest beside Domodedovo Airport
Birch forest alongside a Domodedovo Airport runway

Silver Birch trees I spoke long ago at a cold-war think-tank in Siberia. My hosts walked me through a mile of trees to get there. They made sure I was lost as Hansel in the woods. What they did tell me was that those trees, white with black streaks, were beryoska, or silver birch.

The Russians drink birch juice. They make it into wine or beer. They once used birch bark to make writing paper, shoes, even casts for broken bones. Their word for birch is kin to their word for taking care of. The Birch tree was a gift from God. You know the old Song of the Volga Boatmen? Part of it says,

Now we fell the stout birch tree, Now we pull hard: one, two, three.
I'll provide a link to it, and a link to the eerie and graceful Russian Birch Ensemble's dance in honor of birch trees.

And that's just Russia. Birch forests lie across Finland, Norway, and Sweden - across the north-eastern United States and up through Canada. They surrounded me when I grew up in Minnesota. Native Americans used the bark to make wigwams, canoes, and every kind of decorative item. The sap makes birch syrup.

Birch is a hard wood, good for furniture and plywood. But it has to be well-cured or it warps. Hughes' Spruce Goose was really made from a special plywood - layers of birch veneer. Hughes put teams of women to work ironing the veneer to stabilize it before they made it into plywood. You gaze up at that great gun-metal gray airplane and it's hard to connect it with birch trees. But it is a true cousin of the Indian canoe. Same strength and buoyancy.

The Spruce Goose
The Spruce (or, more correctly, Birch) Goose

Most northern countries honor Birch trees: It's the Celtic symbol of rebirth and purification. One of the sacred trees of Norway and Sweden. It was important for Nordic settlers of Greenland and Iceland. Greenland's only forests lie at its southern tip, and they're mainly birch. Birch is the only tree native to Iceland.

Birch trees had countless uses as folk-medicine. Web MD verifies that it's a fine source of Vitamin C, and a useful diuretic.

Hughes got that great Birch Goose into the sky only once. And then it didn't really fly. Rather, it rode along on a cushion of air just above the water - like a pelican, skimming Galveston Harbor -- with a delicacy caught by James Russell Lowell when he wrote,

The birch, most shy and ladylike of trees.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Spruce Goose interior
The birch construction of the "Spruce" Goose fuselage is more evident in the unpainted interior.
Birch plywood cross-section
Cross section of a birch plywood fitting from the "Spruce" Goose.

For more on Birch trees and their uses, see the Wikipedia article on Birch.

For suggested medicinal uses of birch, see Dr. Christopher's Herbal Legacy page. The Web-MD page verifies some of this.

I provide links in the text for the Song of the Volga Boatmen and for the Ensemble Beryozka, and I repeat them here. The amazing baritone Leonid Kharitonov whom you hear singing the Song of the Volga Boatmen is a Soviet treasure who had to operate largely behind the Iron Curtain, owing to the Cold War.

The cold war think-tank that I mention was Akademgorodok. I was one of three western researchers asked to lecture there in 1972. I visited Samson Kutateladze and spoke at his Kutateladze Institute for Thermal Physics. That was the facility hidden away in the birch forest.

See also the Wikipedia article on the Spruce Goose, and my Episode on The Ground Effect. Today, the Spruce Goose resides in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, OR. For my slide show of the Museum including the Not-Spruce Goose, click here.

The Silver Birch image is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. All other photos by John Lienhard. The James Russell Lowell quote is from his poem, An Indian Summer Reverie. The full section about birch trees is:

The birch, most shy and lady-like of trees,
Her poverty, as best she may, retrieves,
And hints at her foregone gentilities
With some saved relics of her wealth of leaves;

Spruce Goose in situ
The not-so-Spruce Goose
in situ at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon

This episode was first aired on June 1, 2016

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2015 by John H. Lienhard.